Are we anti-Semitic?


On 5 December last year the Chief Rabbi of Brussels, Albert Gigi, was walking through Anderlecht when he was assaulted by a group of Arab-speaking youths. He was chased into a nearby metro station and he and his companion were abused as ‘dirty Jews’. One of the assailants kicked the rabbi in the face, breaking his glasses. It was a nasty, sordid little attack, overt in its anti-Semitism. Happily rabbi Gigi was not seriously injured. There the matter might have rested, but for the significance that has recently been attached to the assault. For the attack on rabbi Gigi, if we are to believe proponents of the argument, is simply the latest and most significant example of Europe’s fast growing and virulent new anti-Semitism.

The new anti-Semitism – say those who argue most strongly for its existence – is not simply limited to attacks on individuals like rabbi Gigi, and to a spate of attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools and cemeteries. Instead, they say, it is a pernicious and widespread cancer infecting the media and political classes across Europe.

In Britain the Telegraph ‘s proprietor, Conrad Black, and his journalist wife, Barbara Amiel, have been at the forefront of the finger-pointing. Black has accused sections of the British media of ‘wittingly or not, stoking the inferno of anti-Semitism’. Amiel, for her part, has identified a newly confident anti-Semitism in ‘London’s political salon scene’.

In Israel the right-wing Jerusalem Post (also owned by Mr Black) and the liberal, Anglophile Ha’aretz have devoted yards of space to defining the phenomenon. Israel’s deputy foreign minister Michael Melchior has called in European ambassadors to complain about its rise.

Here too it has been debated across the pages of our more literate press, a debate that has reached boiling point in Britain in recent weeks. The New Statesman – through an ill-advised cover illustration for an article detailing attempts at media bullying and manipulation by the government of Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Ariel Sharon – was accused of anti-Semitism and forced to apologise for what it characterised as a ‘kosher conspiracy’. Now in the current issue of the Spectator (owned by the ubiquitous Mr Black), Melanie Phillips describes the growing anti-Semitism of Christians in the Anglican Church which one Church source informs her reminds him of ‘a throwback to the visceral anti-Judaism of the Middle Ages’.

If all this is true then we live in dangerous times indeed. Our institutions are being gnawed at by a disease that George Orwell condemned as an ‘unforgivable sin’. But the problem with all this talk of a ‘new anti-Semitism’ is that those who argue hardest for its inexorable rise are dangerously conflating two connected but critically separate phenomena. The monster that they have conjured from these parts is not only something that does not yet exist – and I say ‘yet’ with caution – but whose purported existence is being cynically manipulated by some in the Israeli government to try to silence debate about the policies of the Sharon government.

So what are the facts about anti-Semitism in Europe?

It is a fact, my Jewish friends tell me, that they feel more exposed to criticism and misunderstanding than at any time they can remember by those who sloppily confuse the fact of their Jewishness with the controversial policies being enacted by Sharon – something, they tell me, has reminded them how they are viewed as ‘other’. It is a fact too that Jewish communities feel more in danger than ever before following the events of 11 September and the explicit anti-Semitic threat posed by of groups connected to al-Qaeda. But these are subjective rather than objective judgments.

Objectively too it is undeniable that there has indeed been a rise in anti-Semitic attacks across Europe. But that fact, often cited in articles identifying the rise of the new anti-Semitism in Europe, hides a more complex picture. For far from proving the dangerous reach and scope of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ in Europe, it shows it instead confined largely, but not exclusively, to a single group. And to a group that itself feels equally persecuted in European life.

As data collected by the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, and other research, makes clear, the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe coincided with the beginning of al-Aqsa intifada – and Israel’s heavy-handed response – with most of these attacks limited to acts of vandalism on synagogues and cemeteries. As the institute also makes clear, the perpetrators of these attacks, like those who attacked rabbi Gigi, were largely disaffected Islamic youths, a group itself that is the victim of some of the worst race hate and discrimination in Europe.

It would be wrong to be complacent about the increase in attacks. But the context is critical.

For it is Israel’s handling of the al-Aqsa intifada that has supplied the second strand in the equation for those, particularly in Israel, who argue that there is a virulent new strand of European anti-Semitism.

What they are talking about is the criticism in the media and political classes of Europe of the policies of Sharon. Israel’s brutal response to the often equally reprehensible anti-Israeli Palestinian violence of the intifada has produced one of the most vigorous media critiques of Israel’s policies in the European media in a generation. The reply to this criticism, say those most vocal in reporting the existence of the new anti-Semitism, particularly in the Israeli press, is devastating in its simplicity: criticise Israel, and you are an anti-Semite just as surely as if you were throwing paint at a synagogue in Paris.

It is at this point that the charges of the broad scope of the new anti-Semitism should be rejected for what they are: an attempt to deflect criticism from the actions of an Israeli government by declaring criticism of Israel out of bounds and invoking Europe’s last great taboo – the fear of being declared an anti-Semite. For while the phenomenon of anti-Jewish sentiment and attacks in some quarters of the Islamic community in Europe is to be deplored, so too must be the effort to co-opt it as an alibi for Israel’s behaviour and to use it to silence opposition to its policies.

For it is significant that those European countries that have been most criticised in recent Israel press reports and commentaries as the prime focuses of the new anti-Semitism – France and Belgium – are also those that have criticised the policies and person of Ariel Sharon most forcefully, not least Belgium which had threatened to bring Sharon before a court on war crimes charges for his involvement in the Sabra and Chatila massacre.

This is an issue that is not going to go away. The seeds of a mutual distrust have been sown between those who represent the government institutions of Israel and those, particularly, in liberal Europe’s élites. The only proper response is one of rigorous honesty. The governments of Europe must attack real anti-Semitism wherever it is found. The Jewish community worldwide must be honest too about what is really being done in Israel, ostensibly in its name. For the rest of us who campaign and report and commentate and legislate on Israel and Palestine – we should not be cowed in our criticism of policies of which we disapprove by the threat of being accused by Sharon and his friends of being practitioners of the last taboo.

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